Remarriage

The question came up after last week’s post about the length of mourning periods between remarriages in seventeenth-century New England. It has always been my (undocumented) impression that the traditional one-year mourning period was usually observed except for emergency situations, such as the need to care for infant and young children.

I looked around for some studies to see if I could back that up with statistics, but so far I have not found anything that particularly applies to early New England – a lot yet to track down, especially in books that are not available online. So I decided to start my own study using the Early New England Families sketches.

I am extracting, where there is sufficient information, the length of time between the death of the previous spouse and the remarriage (for both bride and groom, if applicable, and also other marriages of spouses), their ages at remarriage, the number of living children by the previous marriage at time of remarriage, and the age of the youngest child at remarriage. Out of the 87 Early New England Families sketches this amounts to a total of thirty remarriages.

There was no legal requirement in colonial New England that any person had to wait any specific time after a spouse’s death to remarry – nor was there a requirement that a widow or widower had to remarry at all. The tradition of the one-year mourning period, which I think can trace its roots back to Jewish laws, depended on what the individual, his or her family, and the community considered proper.

There was no legal requirement in colonial New England that any person had to wait any specific time after a spouse’s death to remarry…

From what I have read so far, there was definitely a gender bias, as widowers remarried sooner than widows. The widow and/or her children, unless entirely destitute, would have inherited some means from the husband/father’s estate, and more importantly, a woman already had the skills to deal with young children and the home. She would need help with farming and farm labor. A widower might have the superior financial position and be able to take care of the farm, but he was less likely to have been trained in women’s domestic skills inside the home.

Of the thirty marriages in this little study, only one widow remarried in less than a year after her husband’s death. Faith (—) Browne married Daniel Warner five months after the death of her husband. Daniel had lost his wife eight months prior. Of his six surviving children, the youngest was probably about age four. Lydia had three children, one of whom was a minor under age twenty-one.

Of the widowers, there were ten who remarried in under a year, but only one seems to have been left with an infant child – Rev. Peter Hobart had a seven-month-old child when he married Rebecca Peck seven months after he lost his first wife, who also left him with nine other children under age seventeen.

Averages so far: Widowers remarried after 2.72 years (range 7 years to 3 months); widows after 3.06 years (range 8 years to 5 months).

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia is the lead genealogist on the new NEHGS study project, Early New England Families, 1641-1700. Prior to joining the NEHGS staff, she compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant, the Alden Family Five Generations project, and the Harlow Family : Descendants of Sgt. William Harlow (1624/5-1691) of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University. In October 2016, Alicia was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.

38 thoughts on “Remarriage

  1. Is it possible that a widow might have been expected to wait a year before remarriage in order to prove that any child she bore after the second marriage was not descended from her first husband?

  2. They were pretty much pragmatic about survival in what was still a wilderness, especially if there was a nursing infant or child…assuming mothers would nurse for at least a year. Babies would need a wet nurse, otherwise instant weaning; and siblings need a mother.
    And, marriage at the time was not a religous contract, but a civil contract. There were no religious overtones to death of a spouse and remarriage.
    A widow had right of dower and usually a percentage of the home to live in until such time she remarried. Many other men would be very interested in a widow who had a dower and perhaps other bequests from her husband.

    I don’t remember the time frame when marriage became a religious contract. Will have to look that one up…

    Alicia, you have the curious mind of a researcher, no matter the subject.
    That’s what makes a good genealogist.

    1. Judith, thank you. In early New England church and civil marriages co-existed, with the colony granting marriage authority to individuals, often in the absence of clergy.

      1. Alicia, As part of their reforming zeal the establishment of a “godly household through marriage” was an elevated goal, as Christine below on 6 October has already noted.

        BUT marriage by clergy were seen as Too Popish. The “legal” right to perform marriages was invested in magistrates–as was divorce.[1] No ecclesiastical courts for these people! See “The Character of the Good Ruler: A Study of Puritan Political Ideas in New England, 1630-1730”, [(New Haven: 1970). Paperback edition by Norton in November 1974. Online edition by American Council of Learned Societies 2004-2011].

        The Society library no longer has Breen, but the legal rationale for “public” marriages is likely addressed too in David D. Hall’s “The Faithful Shepherd; A History Of The New England Ministry In The Seventeenth Century” (Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina Press [1972]), which the Society still has at BR520 .H3 1972.

        And the full rationale would be laid out more fully in his recent “A Reforming People : Puritanism and the transformation of public life in New England” (Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 2012), at F7 .H33 2012.

        [1] Note that in NEITHER the LIBERTIES (1641) nor in the LAWS (1647) is the topic of marriage addressed at all. Zip, nada, nothing. (Links to both at http://www.mass.gov/courts/case-legal-res/law-lib/laws-by-source/historical.html)

        Why no codification of an explicit practice? Lawyer John Winthrop Sr gives the game away thusly: John Noble in his preface to Records General Court vol. 1 (1901) on p. viii quotes from Winthrop who declared that he and most other early magistrates preferred to have “laws” arise “pro re nata on ocasions” because “to raise up [such] laws had been no transgression” of the explicit 1629 Charter section that the Colony make “no laws repugnant to the laws of England”– as we have “in our church discipline, and in matters of marriage….” No, no, these are not “laws”, they are just stuff that circumstances kind of led us to do here–yeah, that’s the ticket.

        Oh, the only Index references in vol. 1 to Marriage is the following on p. 518:
        Marriage – joining persons in, Capt. Dan’. Fisher empowered for, on pet”. from Dedham 87
        – case of Dorcas & Hugh March 127

  3. Interesting project. I am involved in a project I am calling “Additions and Corrections to Crafts History of Whately” and it would be ideal for looking at this same question. I am including the date and cause of death in every case where the info is available, followed by remarriage, if any.

      1. Sorry, haste makes confusion. James Monroe Crafts wrote a wonderful history of Whately, Massachusetts with a comprehensive genealogical section. His book was published in 1899. The complete title is “History of the Town of Whately, Mass Including a narrative of leading events from the first planting of Hatfield: 1661 – 1899”. Since the summer of 2016 I have been working on a project to update the genealogical section of his work.

        1. AH! As someone who loves crafts, I was so hoping it was crafts in early New England you were researching. Good luck with your Crafts genealogy project!

  4. My great grandmother passed away at 38 while taking a trip back to Sicily to visit family in 1904. She had 6 children, and was travelling with the three youngest, ages 6 (twins) and 4. Within less than a year, my great grandfather was married again (to his cousin from Sicily), having her travel back to the States with the youngest child. She had been helping to look after the youngest children after their mother passed away. Three years later, he had asked other family members bring the twins back to the States. The family expanded with six more children surviving to adulthood. Yes, necessity to remarry was the key to keeping family together.

  5. Very interesting! Many of my ancestors remarried after losing spouse, but most were understandable for reasons above. My gggrandfather remarried at age 51 within five months of his 1st wife’s death in 1852 in Southern IL (his youngest child was 11, he had dtrs 14 and 16) to a widow, age 35 (husband had died 5 years prior) with 4 children who owned land that she purchased on her own the year before. They had a child together (my ggfather). Always wondered why she married him, as she was financially stable and had older sons to tend to farm. He died 8 years later and ‘her’ land was part of his estate.

  6. Another remarriage to add to your study: Widower Thomas Greene of Malden married widow Elizabeth (Jeggles) Webb on 19 Aug. 1667, 1 month and 28 days after Thomas’s wife Margaret d. 22 June 1667. Elizabeth Webb waited almost 9 years (her first husband, Jonathan Webb, d. Sept. 1658) [TAG 89:72].

  7. This is a fascinating area of study. I am lucky that my family has a well-documented extensive genealogy that was written many years ago by someone skilled in that area. I will have to go through it since there are many generations of New Englanders starting with those who came with the Winthrop fleet ( we were Puritans ) I know that all the names and dates of marriages are in there. What a great idea thank you

    I am also very intrigued by the person who wrote in saying that they were working on a research project concerning crafts. . I have been collecting books on the subject for quite a while and attending lectures at a skilled trades library here in New York City that keeps wonderful historic records. One thing I’ve learned is that towns were organized around rivers and waterfalls that lead to major ports — and I discovered that certain trades were located close to the coast and others were always located further inland such as farmers. Mills and other such crafts were located along the stream always a certain point in order to make use of the tides and power to turn those mills I have been watching this organizational style change through the generations as transportation options changed so did the way these families created and located their communities Right now I’m trying to get a hold of a copy of an old book on how geography and the lay of the land affected particularly early American settlements

    Of particular interest to me was a story that you all ran a couple months ago on how the women of the revolutionary war survive twin their men were away fighting. I loved the article on the lace makers of Ipswich It has taken me some to some very interesting places

    Thanks to all of you

    Sam

  8. In my twenty years of genealogy, I’ve noticed that often a widower would marry his dead wife’s sister. It makes sense since they often lived nearby, the children were already familiar with their aunt, the aunt had a biological interest in caring for the children, and both widower and sister had a common grief for the woman who died. I never have written down the amount of time before remarriage,. I have noticed that while the death date for the first wife isn’t always recorded, the marriage to the second wife is usually written down — it must have something to do with inheritance laws? Does anyone know?

  9. I too have recorded numerous Colonial ancestors who remarried after a spouse’s death, but hadn’t thought of collecting data about how long they waited. I will, and will pass along the information for your study.
    I have often thought about the instances where women, who often were much younger than their widowed husbands, took on the duties of raising 10 or more of his children and hers by earlier marriages. Actually, I’ve thought about how difficult it would have been for any wife to care for so many. (I laughed when I recorded one family where the 10th and last child was named Silence.)
    Think of changing all the babies and doing everyone’s laundry in a tub! Imagine common colds bouncing around the children all winter when you’re stuck in the house! What did they eat, meal after meal? Did they sit down to dinner together or were children served from a pot whenever they were hungry?
    But back to the original topic, what brave women they were who married a widower who needed her just to keep his house and provide other wifely services. I do hope some found love, too.

    1. Linda, the older girls took on co-mothering duties very early. Sometimes the eldest never got the chance to marry herself. Nearly every family had at least one maiden aunt who helped raise the others.

  10. Welcome ALL to the world of historical research begun 55+ years ago by The Cambridge Group behind “The World We Have Lost” series: HISTORICAL DEMOGRAPHY. Wikipedia explains the concept and background here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_demography

    One of the earliest published US out growth of the CG’s work was Philip Greven’s book Four Generations, which is on Andover. Prior to that, early social history/demographic US analyses had appeared in some of the major US history journals as well as in the US Journal of Economic History (on Dedham! of course). The generally accepted Average 1st Marriage Time Frames for Men (18-25) and Women (17-23) stem from these works.

    For an overview of how HD applies to the US, this maybe-available-only-through-JSTOR article by Walter Nugent is a 1986 overview as it “Specifically treats native American populations, frontier settlement, and the baby boom of the 1940s and 50s” : https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ338226 Current US studies appear in this journal: http://www.populationassociation.org/publications/demography/

    There are 3 World books by co-leader Peter Laslett, or rather 3 editions, the original from 1966, 1st revised of 1984, and 2nd revised of 2005. Many cheap copies are available on eBay, Amazon and ABE. Our Society has the 3rd edition UK copy of 1983 {DA320 .L3 1983} so the 2005 edition may be the 4th one.

    The Group is disbanded. However, its work has been picked up by groups like this in a format which looks to be FREE online: https://socialhistory.org/en/events/cfp-historical-demography-journal

    The Cambridge Group also launched the now venerable and likely available in hard copy at a university library near you Journal of Social History: https://academic.oup.com/jsh

    Re-marriages rates were addressed by the CG, among many demographic issues, but as its been decades since I last read on this subject, I have no memory of what their conclusions were. One of their conclusions I do remember is that rates of illegitimacy were much lower than would be predicted across England for the 1660-1760 period.

    More importantly, genealogically speaking, they created, in Those Card Punch Days of Yore, a Family Group Sheet geared to capturing a family unit snap-shot at any given time. They did so because they were looking to see what changes occurred within both an individual family over time and then via the computer analysis, said changes in larger social groups. In effect, a combination “census enumeration” with known genealogical information per a specific date. There’s a How To book out there with the chart laid out and with descriptions of the input boxes. A very useful tool.

    This type of social history analysis for, say, The Puritan Migration has never been done. Anderson’s GM series, WHEN DONE, and Alicia’s work here, will provide THE data bank to do that analysis. But with SPSS now a PC based application, it is now more do-able. If you have a budding historian in your family in need of a thesis or PHD topic, tell them about this! There are grants to be had in support of this kind of work.

    In the meantime, Alicia’s rough analysis sounds correct to me: Men remarry faster than Woman between 1630 and 1700 as a rule with individual outliers to be expected. The social pressure to re-marry was explicit.

  11. Alicia,

    Interesting study. I have two unrelated instances in my family in central Illinois in the mid 19th c. One of my gg grandmothers, Elizabeth Rutherford, lost her first husband, farmer John Thomas Waggoner, to pneumonia, in January 1870. Her five children were 10 to under a year. The 1870 census shows several neighbors related to her husband, so she probably got some help on the farm from them. In September 1872, in the same county, she married David Niles, by whom she had seven more children between 1875 and 1889. It was his only marriage. Born in Illinois, he came from a family I’ve traced back to colonial New England. A gg aunt, Jennie Bastion, b. 1854, lost her first husband, Aaron Seass, in June 1878, leaving her with a four year old son; she lived with her parents until she married George Bartlett as his 3rd wife. He’d married the first time in 1861 and had 6 children, four of them girls who began to marry in 1884; this wife died in March, 1874, when the youngest were 2 and 4. He remarried in May, 1875, and had three more children; this wife died in December 1882, leaving three children under 7. So when Jennie married him, in December 1883, George had a total of nine children. His older girls were out of the house, married, one of them as far away as Kansas. In addition to her own 10 year old, those from the first marriage ranged from 23 down to 12, and from the second marriage from 7 to 5. Jennie and George didn’t have children, though she died between 1884 and 1886, so it’s possible she died in childbirth. George, who died in 1887, remarried about a year after losing each wife, presumably because he had young children needing care, whereas Elizabeth was, as you note, more able to handle the domestic side, and in this case got help on the farm from in-laws. I don’t have much New England data on my family, who tended to head west pretty early. I’d like to pursue this for them all the same!

    Doris

  12. Excellent article and concept for research! I would submit my 11th great grandmother Susanna White, a Mayflower passenger whose husband William died 21 February 1621 during that first awful winter in Plymouth and the dying time. She married Edward Winslow 12 May 1621, also a recent widower, less than three months after her husband’s demise. This was the first marriage in New England, and my 10th great grandfather Peregrine was the first English child born there. I will look for time between widowhood and remarriage in my tree as time permits. Always enjoy your submissions to Vita brevis!

    1. Steven, your ancestry has just been extended on White line significantly.

      See the latest issue of The American Genealogist (vol 89, no. 2) for the lead article, part 1 of 3, “The English Origin and Kinship of Mayflower Passengers William White and Dorothy (May) Bradford of Wisbech, Cambridgeshire”, by Caleb Johnson, Sue Allan, and Simon Neal. Quite a fun “True Detective” presentation.

      SPOILER ALERT!
      They are half-uncle and half-niece

    2. Steven, Looks like we are related. William and Susanna are also part of my tree, as is Peregrine. From there we go to Sylvanus White, William White, Abner, Charles, Henry, Egbert, Emily Jane, Walter Smith, Emolyn Smith, my Grandmother.
      Do any of these names fit your line?

  13. I’m a little surprised by the average length of time the surviving spouses waited to remarry, I would have thought having a help-mate would have out weighed any societal expectations. I wonder if these numbers would differ by location or economic position? Say, 17th century VA or servant-class.

  14. I’m going to review my file and share with Alicia. No one has mentioned thatnPuritans believed that marriage was the proper state for adults – a responsibility. They did not encourage anyone to maintain a single state – they firmly believed in having a helpmeet, and a proper and safe outlet for baser drives. I will keep you posted. My early ancestors are primarily in Essex county and some on the Cape.

    1. Christine, thanks. That attitude undoubtedly stems from the idea that unmarried men and women should not live by themselves, where they might get up to no good business!

  15. Thanks for such a thought-provoking post – and interesting comments! I have quite a gaggle of early New England ancestors going back to the Great Migration. They intrigue me, these Puritans and I find myself researching as much about their times and culture as I do my individual ancestors. In my own Puritan history, I noted many remarriages. And after working as a historical presenter at Greenfield Village’s colonial farm in Dearborn, Michigan, I think I have a better understanding of why folks didn’t stay single for long. Dressed in colonial garb (including stays), I spent days at the Daggett farm cooking and doing some of the chores that my female New England ancestors would have done. Men did other distinctly different chores. Their combined efforts allowed for the survival of the family. My sense is that a widow or widower would have had a tough road to go without a helpmate. I’m not sure that explains why one of my ancestors married 3 times but his story is written up in the Register – The Three Wives of William Orvis.

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